All-Star Game Recap

With such a high-scoring event, all people really want to see with the NBA All-Star game is who stood out on the the stat line, who won, whether or not it was a good game and highlights, of course. I’m happy to report that for once, the All-Star game was actually close and competitive down the stretch as the West outlasted the East 152-149. This is the kind of game All-Star game fans want to see every year, not a 20-point blowout like it normally is (and was about to be this year as well). Although the ending was anticlimactic (overtime would have been a great way to finish off an impressive comeback by the East), hopefully the teams will come out just as competitive next year. So here are the basic headlines to wrap up All-Star Weekend:

1) Kevin Durant won the MVP award with 36 points and 7 rebounds. Kobe Bryant passed Michael Jordan as the career scoring leader in All-Star history, scoring 27. He also sustained a nasal fracture after what looked like a hard foul from Dwyane Wade (who said he wasn’t trying to draw blood with the foul). Russell Westbrook had 21 points and Blake Griffin had 22 along with a critical steal that wrapped the game up for the West. Kevin Love, who won the 3-point contest on Saturday, scored 17 while Chris Paul had 8 points and 12 assists.

Your 2012 All-Star MVP

2) Even in an All-Star game, LeBron James fell short in the 4th quarter. The All-Star game is never extremely competitive, but James sure sounded upset in his postgame interview about turning the ball over when his team needed him most. He admittedly had a great final quarter barring that one mistake, as his 36 points and hot 3-point shooting got the East back into the game. But this small mistake is going to be the sort of thing people remember and you better believe they’ll bring it up again and again until LeBron proves himself to be clutch in the 4th. Dwyane Wade finished with a triple double with 24 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Deron Williams had 20, Carmelo Anthony finished with 19 and Derrick Rose had 14.

LeBron had a great game until he fell apart in the game's final plays

3) TNT almost killed All-Star weekend. The commentating was fine because there was an actual basketball game to talk about, but this problem was a trend of the weekend. From the Dunk Contest to the awful selections for the national anthem and half-time show, TNT seemed to be trying to make this All-Star weekend the worst one yet. Mary J. Blige butchered the national anthem by holding ridiculously long notes that were off-key, while Pitbull and Chris Brown ruined the half-time show (Pitbull is already a bad artist, why have him on stage, completely out-of-breath and trying to rap his “greatest hits?” And don’t get me started on Chris Brown. How could any human being beat Rihanna?).

Oh yeah and who can forget about Nicki Minaj's awful performance? Come on, TNT

But probably most important, here are the best highlights from the game:

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What Went Wrong with the Phoenix Suns?

Before you say, “Everything!”, laugh, and leave the page, let me remind you of something. Just two years ago, the Phoenix Suns finished with a 54-28 record and were legitimate contenders in the Western Conference Finals. Two years ago, Alvin Gentry was putting an emphasis on defense that was actually effective when matched up with D’Antoni’s offensive run-and-gun style that was embedded in the team’s DNA. Two years ago, the Suns had a great starting lineup (Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, a younger Grant Hill, an athletic Jason Richardson and the up-and-coming Robin Lopez) and one of the best benches in the league in Goran Dragic, Jared Dudley, Lou Amundson and Leandro Barbosa. What happened? As an avid Suns fan through thick and thin, I have to put a little blame on Ron Artest (or Metta World Peace, now) and a lot of blame on poor management.

Let’s cover Artest first. Despite being undersized throughout the series against the Lakers’ big men, the Suns were one good box-out (nice going, J-Rich) and one Artest buzzer-beater away from taking a commanding 3-2 lead in the Western Conference Finals. Barring that miraculous shot from heaven (or hell, if you resent Artest as much as I do), the Suns had a chance at making the NBA Finals. They had a chance at keeping Amare interested in staying in Phoenix. But maybe most important of all, they had a chance to seize the moment and win a championship before old age started to take its toll.

Will Nash and Hill ever get a championship? No one can deny they deserve one, but it doesn't look like they'll ever get one

Most Suns fans know what happened from there: poor management. Keep in mind that this is the same organization that gave up Joe Johnson to Atlanta for Boris Diaw. This is the organization that notoriously traded draft picks year after year for cash considerations and future draft picks. What type of players, you ask? Oh, just players like Luol Deng (2004), Nate Robinson (2005), Rajon Rondo (2006) and Rudy Fernandez (2007). But after all of that, the Suns couldn’t possibly let Amare go without getting anything good in return, right?

Wrong. Amare leaves for New York. Grant Hill’s age starts to catch up with him and he can only kick in about 10 points a game while being the defensive stopper. Amundson is gone. Robin Lopez fails to develop into the quality center he showed signs of in the playoffs. But worst of all, Suns management makes a series of questionable moves to try and generate some excitement after losing Amare, rather than trying to find a replacement big man. So in comes Hakim Warrick. Josh Childress. Hedo Turkoglu. A trade soon after with Orlando that exchanged Turkoglu and one dunker past his prime (J-Rich) for another dunker WAY past his prime (Vince Carter, who admittedly is doing well with Dallas now), along with Michael Pietrus and Marcin Gortat. Then Dragic gets shipped off to Houston for Aaron Brooks.

Looking at that list, you might think, “Well that’s not so bad. Turkoglu does just fine in Orlando, Gortat is a great center now, Aaron Brooks is solid, and Vince Carter is making highlights again!” But unfortunately, these acquisitions did little for the Suns during their stay in Phoenix. Gortat saw limited time behind a weak Channing Frye and a disappointing Lopez, Turkoglu’s game was hit-or-miss before he was shipped off, Brooks wasn’t the elite backup to Nash he showed promise of being (leaving for China doesn’t help) and Vince Carter just looked downright bad at times. The team didn’t gel, and Alvin Gentry found that his team could no longer put up big points OR play defense.

The Suns have a mascot that can dunk a basketball through a ring of fire. Why can't they put a decent team on the court?

Fast forward to this year, after the Suns miss the playoffs and talks of trading Nash and Hill are at their strongest. Grant Hill is my personal favorite player of all time (other than MJ) and Nash has done so much for the franchise, so I blow these talks off as ridiculous. But now it seems those dissenting fans and analysts were right. Management’s version of making quality moves to improve the Suns’ weak areas included signing Shannon Brown to a team already overstocked on forwards along with has-been Sebastian Telfair. And while Markieff Morris was a good draft pick (finally), the Suns still find themselves as incompetent as ever. You can chalk it up to old age, inconsistent play from role players, and Gentry’s insufferable habit of changing of the lineup because of the inconsistency, but no matter what, the result is another year of weak Suns basketball.

Childress, Warrick, Telfair, Brown, Lopez and Michael Redd were all poor decisions involving players that either never lived up to their full potential or are past their prime. Channing Frye gets big minutes every game and continues to do little as a big man or as a shooter. Gortat is developing into quite the player and Dudley and Morris may be great in a few years, but by that time, Nash and Hill will be gone. As a Suns fan, I was extremely pleased not only with Nash and Hill’s tenure in Phoenix for so long, but also with their affirmations of their love for the city and the team. But at this point, I almost wish Hill had signed with the Bulls and that the Suns could get something good for Nash while he still has value. Because when Nash and Hill retire (and it will most likely be in Phoenix), Suns fans are in for some dark rebuilding years.

Will this logo always represent the depression Suns fans feel right now?

The Rubio Effect

The Minnesota Timberwolves are relevant again. These words should look strange and foreign to you if you’ve followed the NBA at all in the past eight years. Ever since Kevin Garnett was shipped off to Boston in 2007 in a huge deal, Minnesota’s NBA squad has been uninteresting and painful to watch. The Timberwolves have failed to make the playoffs since the 2003-04 season, a depressing statistic made even worse by the fact that the team’s losing record in that time is so dismal. In the six seasons prior to this year, the T-Wolves have an atrocious record of 143-349. Fans have had little to cheer about in the franchise’s 22-year history, especially after the Garnett era. Even with the double-double monster Kevin Love in the paint, the T-Wolves were at the bottom of the West for the second consecutive year with a 17-65 record last year. So even though Minnesota technically still has a losing record at the moment (16-17), how have the lowly T-Wolves become relevant again?

The answer is Ricky Rubio. The Timberwolves have a history of poor management decisions over the years. They traded away the rights to players like Sam Cassell (in exchange for Marko Jaric and Lionel Chalmers. What do you mean you’ve never heard of them?) and Brandon Roy (for Randy Foye, who was taken out with a season-ending injury). Even trading former MVP Kevin Garnett in a massive deal that got them Al Jefferson, Gerald Green, Sebastian Telfair, Ryan Gomes, Theo Ratliff, two draft picks and cash considerations didn’t do enough to help the team in the short term or the long term. So when 2009 draft pick Ricky Rubio didn’t come overseas for two seasons, it looked like Minnesota’s infamously poor drafting had struck again. But luckily for the T-Wolves, Rubio was finally able to play in 2011. And the team hasn’t been the same since.

This is still Kevin Love's team. But Rubio makes them possible playoff contenders

To be fair, Rubio’s number’s aren’t fantastic (11 ppg, 8 apg, and 4 rpg). And neither are the Timberwolves to be perfectly honest. But the fact that they’re in the playoff hunt and making highlights again, along with the fact that we’re even having this discussion speaks volumes about where this young team could be in a few years. Kevin Love, who is averaging 25 points and 14 rebounds a game, will always be the team’s powerhouse in the middle. But Rubio is the reason this team is actually competing this year. Rubio is a purebred point guard: facilitating the offense, setting up his teammates, getting steals and scoring when he needs to. His court vision is impeccable and his flashy passes make the Timberwolves an exciting team to watch for any basketball fan, let alone the diehard Minnesota fan base who have been waiting for a team to believe in. And Rubio does all of this with a giant smile on his face.

Rubio is giving T-Wolves fans something to smile about

The emergence of Nikola Pekovic as a decent scorer and rebounder has certainly helped, along with Michael Beasley’s steady offensive contribution. The West is wide open this year, so it will take a collective effort from Minnesota’s role players to make a run for the playoffs, but even if they come up short this year, that’s okay. Just the fact that they’re in playoff contention matters to T-Wolves fans, even though you can certainly see why making the postseason this year would be a monumental deal. And while Minnesota still lacks what it needs at the small forward and shooting guard position (Wesley Johnson and Derrick Williams have been slightly disappointing and Luke Ridnour shouldn’t be the long-term answer here), the T-Wolves are building a young and talented core that solidifies an opinion that has long been seen as ridiculous: The Minnesota Timberwolves are worth watching again.

People may have to start taking this logo seriously again

What’s Wrong with the Boston Celtics

When the NBA’s 66-game schedule was first released, a lot of people thought a shortened schedule would largely benefit the older teams. With fewer games, players would have less wear-and-tear to deal with. What they failed to take into account was how crammed these games would be, and how much of an impact that would have teams like the Boston Celtics.

Back during training camp week, a lot of people interpreted the Celtics’ complaints about the rushed training camp as bitter whining. But they may have had a point. This condensed schedule does not favor the older teams, like the Celtics, who are having enough trouble competing this season even with their full lineup on the court.

Old age is definitely starting to catch up with the Celtics. Paul Pierce has been Boston’s most consistent player this season, leading the team in scoring with 17 points a game (which is definitely not All-Star worthy, but still good). But from there, the rest of the Big Three and Rondo have been entirely inconsistent. Just when Kevin Garnett was starting to pick up his play from the beginning of the season, injury took him off the court. Ray Allen hasn’t quite been a disappearing act, but his numbers are definitely down. And Brandon Bass, the Celtics’ most valuable bench player who had been getting quality minutes to give KG a breather, was also bitten by the injury bug, leaving the Celtics in desperate need of some scoring contribution.

The Big Three are having their least productive season yet

And then you’ve got Rajon Rondo, who seems to have become the team’s anchor lately. But is he really? People keep saying Rondo is keeping the Celtics relevant in the East right now, but if you take a closer look at the stats, you find something interesting. I got into a debate last night with a few friends about who is the best point guard in the game right now and someone threw out Rondo’s name for consideration, claiming he’s the most vital to his team’s success. My response was “Absolutely not.” Why?

Just look at these facts: 1) Without Rondo on the floor, the Celtics are 6-3, a product of better defense (Avery Bradley is one of the best on-the-ball defenders in the league). Sure it’s a small sample size, but before Rondo was out for that 8-game stretch, the Celtics were 5-8. And even with him increasing his offensive production in the last few games, Boston has still lost six of their last seven. 2) Defenses are catching on to how to guard Rondo: play a few feet off him, keep him out of the paint and make him shoot jumpers, the weakest area of his game. This completely stops the Celtics’ offense and is a big reason why the Celtics haven’t reached 100 points in their last 10 games. 3) Despite being such a smart player on the court, his temper sometimes gets the best of him and affects his play. He is currently serving his two-game suspension being ejected for throwing the ball at the referee. The Celtics suffered a beatdown from the Mavs yesterday, largely because Rondo was on the bench (KG and Bass were missed too).

Rondo is averaging 14 ppg and 10 apg but it still hasn't been enough for the aging Celtics

No one is dumb enough to say that the Celtics would be better off with Bradley at the point, but Boston might want to look into trading Rondo for some new pieces as KG, Pierce and Allen continue to age. In his defense, Rondo had stepped up his scoring to the highest average of his career after learning he didn’t make the All-Star team, but that number is still only 14 points per game. Rondo has never been a prolific scorer because he doesn’t always need to score to be effective, but with Allen and KG also only averaging 14 points a game, someone needs to help Paul Pierce and the Celtics put some numbers up. Even though Boston’s stingy defense usually means they’re competitive in most games, Rondo will have to step his scoring up even more if the Celtics are going to stay relevant, as Pierce, KG and Allen are all producing their lowest scoring averages since their rookie seasons.

The Celtics got off to an extremely poor start this season before picking things up again. For a short stretch, they even looked like the resilient and talented Boston team fans cheered for in the NBA Finals just a few years ago. But unfortunately for Boston fans, it looks like that window for success may be closing on the aging Celtics.

Nuggets Nosedive?

The Denver Nuggets started the season on a promising note but after a tough overtime loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder last night, they have lost 10 of their last 13 games. Even before Gallinari went down with the ankle injury, the Nuggets had lost four of their last five. So the question has to be asked: Are the Nuggets in trouble?

In short, no. Worry not, Denver fans! Despite this recent nosedive, as long as Gallinari and Nene are healthy for the playoffs, your team should be just fine once the postseason rolls around. Although the Nuggets have slid into the 9th spot in the West with the loss, as long as this injury-ridden team keeps the losses to a minimum over the next few games, things should start looking up once their leading man Gallinari takes the court again. And here’s an encouraging stat: of the Nuggets’ last 10 losses, six of them have been by 8 points or less. The Nuggets are still staying competitive for the most part, they just need to start picking up the W’s in close situations again.

The Nuggets really miss this guy, but should be fine if they can win half of their next six games

Unfortunately, this may be easier said than done. The Nuggets’ next six games include the surging Timberwolves, Clippers, Trailblazers, Rockets and two meetings with the Spurs, the NBA’s hottest team at the moment. If the Nuggets can get half of those games, Gallinari and Nene should be back right as Denver’s schedule eases up a little bit (Kings, Cavs, Hornets and Grizzlies). These softer games will allow Denver’s injured stars to get back into rhythm before taking on the Hawks, Thunder, Celtics and Mavs.

The Nuggets have been highly competitive in the West for years thanks to George Karl, an extremely supportive fan base, and a style of play that revolves around team basketball. After the major Carmelo/Chauncey Billups trade that left the Nuggets with nine players for their next game, the Denver Nuggets were resilient. After George Karl was diagnosed with cancer and went through chemotherapy and came back the next season to coach his team, the Denver Nuggets were resilient. In the hardest times, this team displays one of their most endearing traits that fans have come to love them for: their heart and effort almost every time they take the floor. Despite not having Gallinari and Nene on the floor, the Nuggets still almost pulled out a win on the road against a great OKC squad (on a night that saw Durant eclipse 50, Westbrook drop 40, and Serge Ibaka record a triple double).

Despite this recent skid uncharacteristic of this Nuggets team, this guy will keep them competitive

Denver has come up a bit short in these past few games. But with guards like Ty Lawson and Arron Afflalo leading the team in their stars’ absence, along with role players like Andre Miller, Al Harrington, Kosta Koufos, Chris Andersen, and Corey Brewer, Denver should have no problem regrouping once they’re at full strength again.

ESPN Mobile’s Big Mistake

For a short time tonight, ESPN Mobile’s headline for the story on Jeremy Lin and the Knicks’ disappointing loss to the Hornets was “Chink in the Armor.” Whether or not this was a mistake, a pun-gone-too-far or just outright ignorance isn’t clear, but whatever the case, this incident is just going to add fuel to the fire of the “Jeremy-Lin-is-only-popular-because-of-his-race” conversation as well as the “Jeremy-Lin-is-held-back-by-his-nationality-and-these-racial-slurs” side.

Don’t get me wrong, this kind of ignorantly racist crap shouldn’t happen, but the discussion this mistake is going to generate is the last thing Linsanity needed. Viewers are already starting to complain about Sportscenter’s excessive coverage, so now with all of ESPN’s upcoming apologies and increased coverage to make up for the mistake, Linsanity will become even more annoying than Tebowmania. Between ESPN and the Twitter universe blowing up, the focus of Lin’s great story will once again shift from being about his talents on the court to being about how his race affects his opportunities. And even though it’s not his fault, people will come to resent Lin (just like Tebow) because they’ll get sick of hearing about every angle to his journey. We need to stop analyzing him as an Asian-American for awhile and start looking at him as a basketball player again.

We shouldn’t be colorblind by any means, because the fact that Lin is an Asian-American NBA star is a fact that should be celebrated. It makes him special and makes the NBA more accessible to a larger fan base. But we need to stop focusing on Lin’s story because of how “controversial” people are making his race out to be and remember that the true magic of this story lies within the basketball angle. What this kid has done in the past week makes a remarkable story regardless of nationality and it would be a shame for such a great story to be overshadowed like that.

Update: ESPN issued its apology and fired the employee responsible for the ESPN Mobile mistake. ESPN also suspended the news anchor who also used the phrase for 30 days.

Injury Report

Here are some injury updates on some key players around the league:

Danilo Gallinari -Gallinari still has about three weeks left until returning from a chip fracture in his left ankle. He was having a great season with Denver until the injury, and the Nuggets need him back as they have lost four of their last six without him.

Derrick Rose – D-Rose is still listed as day-to-day and saw a back specialist earlier in the week, but he’s been listed as day-to-day since the back spasms were first reported, so you’re going to want to check back on this one often. The Bulls have done fine without Rose recently, but will need him healthy to keep it going.

Chauncey Billups – Billups’ Achilles surgery was successful and he says he will be in the NBA after recovery. Whether or not that will be for the 2012-13 season remains to be seen, but he’s definitely done for the year. This is a big blow to the Clippers, who were starting to look like big contenders in the West with the helpful addition of Kenyon Martin. The team will have to rely on more leadership from Chris Paul, especially when the playoffs come around.

Zach Randolph – Z-Bo has been cleared for non-contact drills in practice and is looking at returning to the court in the first or second week of March. He has only played in four games this season thanks to his MCL tear back in January and will likely be a little rusty, so it could take some time for him to get back into the swing of things.

Carmelo Anthony – Melo and the Knicks aren’t going to rush the groin injury because Lin has been taking care of business. He’s listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against the Mavs, but you should probably expect him back in the lineup sometime next week.

Spencer Hawes will miss extended time as he will be spending the next two weeks in a walking boot for his strained Achilles. You can look for him to be back in March after the All-Star break. Brandon Bass and Emeka Okafor will also sit out until after the All-Star break, although their returns looks like they will be more imminent.

Andrea Bargnani’s timetable for a return is still unknown at this point. He was leading the team in scoring but has only played in two games since January 13.
Anderson Varejao will miss 4-6 weeks with a fractured wrist. This definitely won’t help an already lackluster Cavs squad.
Jason Terry sat out last night against the 76ers for personal reasons but should be back for Sunday’s game against the Knicks.
LaMarcus Aldridge is considered a game-time decision for Saturday’s game.
Nene has missed the last three games but is still listed as day-to-day with the calf injury. Keep an eye on this one moving forward.